The World Crashes In, Into My Living Room Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-05-23 14:00:00 No comments

The Somewhat Clogged Culture Pipeline | Steven Savage

The Pipeline isn’t doing it’s job.  There’s a flattening, blanding, ahistorical problem in our culture.  We’re not getting sold things of deep value, we’re getting sold something again and again. Our culture is too important to be left in the hands of simple profit-loss calculations.

The pipeline, as Steven and I have come to call it, is everything that gets culture to you. Mainly, it's the mix of distribution mechanisms that are owned and run by some corporate concern — the Wal-Marts, Amazons, Best Buys, theatrical chains and so on. They're the ones who are actually buying what's out there, which is what makes them so important.

What hasn't gone too closely examined, I fear, is the long-term cultural-ecological effects of this system. Every now and then someone comes along and bleats about "mass culture" (pace Dwight Macdonald once again), scores a few points with exactly the wrong sector of society — mostly the folks who would be happier if everyone threw Harry Potter on the bonfire and picked up some good clean Shakespeare instead — and vanishes in a puff of footnotes. As a result, it's difficult to talk about "cultural pollution" without sounding like a fuddy.

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But with each post I write about this topic, with each new slice I take off a different side of it, I see more and more that the ecological analogies are not at all out of line. To talk properly of "cultural pollution" requires we go less into what is being produced than how. We don't worry as much about a factory that is carbon-neutral, solar-powered and cradle-to-cradle with its raw materials, but we have good reason to worry about a factory that dumps sludge into a river and churns out products destined to sit in a landfill and leak heavy metals into our water table. If the world crashes into our living room, doesn't it stand to reason that it'll take out a load-bearing beam or two in the process if we're not careful?

The biggest problem with the pipeline, as I see it, is that it is an unwitting facilitator of cultural pollution. It makes it all the easier to deliver things — but without regard for whether what's being delivered is garbage or gold. Most people want it that way, because one man's garbage is another man's gold (at least, in theory). What's less widely discussed is how, through this system, the gold of a few is being displaced by the garbage of many — garbage not because of what it is, but how it is what it is. A comic book movie by itself is not a problem; it only becomes one when it becomes logistically impossible to create anything else because no one expects the money to be there for it.

Media companies are the same as any other company. They exist to turn a profit, and they will do this by any expedient means. Few of them take seriously the idea that cultural pollution is a pervasive problem — after all, it takes all kinds of tastes to make a world, doesn't it? Sure, but what if some of those tastes come at the explicit expense of others?

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Yet another analogy comes to mind, one that Steven ought to find familiar: food. We have more of it than ever now, thanks to industrial farming, and the vast majority of it is terrible — not just bad for you, but coarse-flavored (sugar, salt, fat). Worse, its mere existence creates that many less incentives to cook one's own food. The environmental devastation caused by many kinds of farming shouldn't be ignored either, but one disaster at a time.

The mere presence of the pipeline, I fear, is its own form of pressure to move everything in that monolithic a direction, because the pipeline runs on expectations. If you build twenty feet of shelves and only put four feet of stock on them, people assume something's wrong. Nobody wants a supermarket that's 90% empty; that smacks of famine. People expect there to be something on all those TV channels, whether those people are advertisers, promoters, or audiences.

We have become remarkably aware of how dangerous it is to litter the world with things that poke holes in the ozone, that trap heat in the atmosphere, or that fall to pieces entirely too slowly. We need to consider that the way we make and deliver culture — high and low, sacred and profane — demands an ecological approach of its own.

Tags: distribution entertainment marketing media media ecology